Breath of hope as firefighters battle deadly California blaze

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (Reuters) - Glimpses of blue skies gave hope on Sunday to firefighters battling the deadliest wildfires in California history, which have killed at least 40 people and reduced whole neighborhoods in the state's wine country to ash.

Two of the three deadliest blazes were more than half contained by Sunday, making it safe enough for law enforcement to begin inspecting some evacuated areas in hard-hit Sonoma County, according to the county sheriff's office.

Only after those inspections were complete would they begin to decide when it would be safe for residents whose homes were not among the 5,700 structures destroyed by more than a dozen separate wildfires, which ignited a week ago and have since consumed an area larger than New York City.

RELATED: Destruction of California Wildfire

12 PHOTOS
Destruction of California Wildfire
See Gallery
Destruction of California Wildfire
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 15: Bonnie Albertson searches for their family cat, Blue, in the rubble of their burn down home of 30 years after it was destroyed by the Valley Fire wildfire on September 15, 2015 in Hidden Valley Lake, California. The fire tore through the community, destroying over 100 square miles of property across residential neighborhoods and forests. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 15: The bottom of a white picket fence is destroyed by the Valley Fire wildfire on September 15, 2015 in Hidden Valley Lake, California. The fire tore through the community, destroying over 100 square miles of property across residential neighborhoods and forests. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 15: Jay Albertson searches through the rubble of his burned down home of 30 years after it was destroyed by the Valley Fire on September 15, 2015 in Hidden Valley Lake, California. The fire tore through the community, destroying over 100 square miles of property across residential neighborhoods and forests. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 15: The ruins of a home that burned in the Valley Fire are seen on September 15, 2015 in Middletown, California. The 104-square-mile fire is only 15 percent contained and has destroyed 585 homes so far and hundreds of other structures. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
MIDDLETOWN, CA - SEPTEMBER 15: The ruins homes that burned in the Valley Fire are seen on September 15, 2015 in Middletown, California. The 104-square-mile fire is only 15 percent contained and has destroyed 585 homes so far and hundreds of other structures. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
The charred remains of Harbin Hot Springs Resort are seen after the Valley Fire whipped through Middleton, California September 14, 2015. The toll of property losses from the deadly Northern California wildfire, the most destructive this year in the western United States, climbed on Tuesday to at least 585 homes along with hundreds of other structures which have gone up in flames. Picture taken September 14, 2015. REUTERS/Noah Berger
The charred remains of Harbin Hot Springs Resort are seen after the Valley Fire whipped through Middleton, California September 14, 2015. The toll of property losses from the deadly Northern California wildfire, the most destructive this year in the western United States, climbed on Tuesday to at least 585 homes along with hundreds of other structures which have gone up in flames. Picture taken September 14, 2015. REUTERS/Noah Berger
Destroyed vehicles sit abandoned in an area burnt by the Valley Fire near Middletown, California, September 14, 2015. The Northern California wildfire ranked as the most destructive to hit the drought-stricken U.S. West this year has killed one woman and burned some 400 homes to the ground, fire officials said on Monday, and they expect the property toll to climb. REUTERS/David Ryder
The scorched remains of bathing areas are seen at Harbin Hot Springs resort after the Valley Fire whipped through Middleton, California, September 14, 2015. The Northern California wildfire ranked as the most destructive to hit the drought-stricken U.S. West this year has killed one woman and burned some 400 homes to the ground, fire officials said on Monday, and they expect the property toll to climb. REUTERS/Noah Berger
Robert Hooper, exhausted after several days with little sleep, is overcome with emotion while surveying his property that was burnt by the so-called Valley Fire near Middleton, California September 14, 2015. The Northern California wildfire ranked as the most destructive to hit the drought-stricken U.S. West this year has claimed one life and burned at least 400 homes to the ground, fire officials reported on Monday, saying they expected the property toll to climb. REUTERS/David Ryder TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A firefighter surveys a destroyed home at the so-called Valley Fire near Middleton, California, September 14, 2015. A Northern California wildfire ranked as the most destructive to hit the drought-stricken U.S. West this year has claimed one life and burned at least 400 homes to the ground, fire officials reported on Monday, saying they expected the property toll to climb. REUTERS/David Ryder
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

"The skies are blue," Don Martini, a 69-year-old retired carpenter, said after waking up at the Sonoma Raceway campgrounds, where he had spent the previous four days with only smoke and smog overhead. "I haven't seen a blue sky since this whole thing started."

Some at the raceway evacuation center hoped to return to their homes on Sunday.

But the fast-moving fires north of San Francisco remained a danger, with thousands more people ordered to leave their homes on Saturday as the death toll crept upward. Hundreds of people remain unaccounted for, and entire neighborhoods have been turned to ashes.

Some 11,000 firefighters supported by air tankers and helicopters battled fires that have consumed more than 217,000 acres (88,000 hectares).

There were cautious words of relief as firefighters gained control of two of the deadliest fires overnight in wine country's Napa and Sonoma counties: The Tubbs fire was 60 percent contained and the and Atlas fire 56 percent contained, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said in its Sunday morning advisory. But barely a third of the Redwood Valley fire, which alone is responsible for eight deaths in nearby Mendocino county, was extinguished.

CalFire said on Sunday that firefighters had "made good progress towards the containment" of the deadly blazes.

The weather was helping somewhat: Strong winds that had fanned flames had largely died down, but dry gusts would still whip up in the area on Sunday, the National Weather Service said. No rain was forecast to fall on the fires until Wednesday or later.

The 40 confirmed fatalities, including 22 in Sonoma County, make the fires California's deadliest since recordkeeping began, surpassing the 29 deaths from the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.

Some victims were asleep when flames engulfed their homes. Others were unable to escape as 50-mile-per-hour (80-km-per-hour) winds drove the fire faster than they could flee.

With 235 people still missing on Saturday in Sonoma County alone and rubble from thousands of incinerated dwellings yet to be searched, authorities expect the death toll to climb.

About 75,000 people remain displaced. The fires have damaged or destroyed about 5,700 structures.

California Governor Jerry Brown, who toured the Santa Rosa devastation on Saturday, called it "truly one of the greatest tragedies" to ever befall the state.

At least a dozen Napa Valley and Sonoma County wineries were damaged or destroyed, throwing the state's wine industry and related tourism into disarray.

Firefighters from Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah are helping battle the blazes.

Cal Fire estimated the fires would be contained by Oct. 20.

The year's wildfire season is one of the worst in the country's history, with nearly 8.6 million acres burned as of Oct. 13, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The worst on record for the same period in a year was 9.3 million acres in 2015.

 

(Additional reporting by Heather Somerville in Santa Rosa and Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Jon Herskovitz and Chris Michaud; Editing by Andrew Hay and Steve Orlofsky)

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.